New York Herald Tribune
25 July 1948

Phil Silvers, Brownsville To Broadway

By Russell Rhodes

“I’m an old Pitkin Avenue boy from Brownsville,” said Phil Silvers, of “High Button Shoes,” “which probably explains why I had the nerve to go on the stage. (Mr. Silvers is now on vacation.) It was a tough neighborhood. We moved to Bensonhurst, next door to Coney Island, when I was still a kid. I used to spend all my time after school at the Bushwick Theater watching the headliners who came over from the Palace—Van and Schenck, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Leon Erroll, Fanny Brice, Willie Howard—and then imitating them week ends on the Coney Island boardwalk.

“One day I was singing, ‘Look out, look out, look out for Jimmy Valentine!’ when a man leaning on the rail tossed his card at me and said, ‘Come and see me.’ It was Gus Edwards. He put me through the front door of show business—the Palace—in a revival of ‘School Days’ and I toured the country in his units until my voice changed into the weird sounds you hear me making now.”

Reversing the customary approach, Silvers trained for burlesque via vaudeville. While on the Minsky pay roll he teamed with the late Rags Ragland, whom he considers one of the funniest performers, until 1938, when he got a small part in “Yokel Boy” and Ragland went into “Panama Hattie.”

Phil Silvers

Comedian of High Button Shoes at the Shubert Theater

“Will burlesque come back? It should. There’re no good young comedians any more. They’ve no place to learn their stuff. Burlesque started me ad-libbing—one of my strong points.”

Out of “Yokel Boy” Silvers won a contract to Hollywood from Louis B. Mayer. “Footlight Parade” and “Diamond Horseshoe,” with Betty Grable; “Cover Girl” and “My Gal Sal,” With Rita Hayworth, and “Something for the Boys” were some of his pictures. Finding himself resorting to old “business” to be funny, regretting insufficient camera rehearsals in preparation for scenes, he determined that a stage audience was the only tonic “to keep me on my toes.”

“When we opened ‘High Button Shoes’ in Philadelphia last fall I was scared stiff,” the comedian confessed. “My voice tightened up. I was living on throat sprays, thought the end had come and was wondering what sort of a job a washed-up actor could get. It was a tough assignment for me, after pictures, but just what I needed. I was pushing it at the audience too hard, not relaxing.”

Silvers analyzes all his jokes before he tests them in rehearsal. He has written most of his current role through ad-libbing or where, with the director’s consent, he has felt that the comedy situations inspired a twist or phrase. His chief problem in his role, he says, has been to make the audience like an unlikable character.

Although not consciously employing their technique, Silvers has been told that his style is a combination of Ed Wynn’s and Walter Catlett’s. He’s not sensitive about his thinning hair, but, on stage, substitutes burnt cork for a toupee.